MoviefiedNYC’s Top 10 movies of 2016

John David West’s Top 10 Films of 2016

10. Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridge-1Mel Gibson (yep Mad Mel is back) and Hacksaw Ridge proves to be a better venture than his previous outings. The film is sometimes a little schmaltzy with the typical Hollywood, man against all odds, American glory, and pious, good-versus-evil sentimentality, but in actuality it’s kind of refreshing. This is the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) in one of his best performances to date. Doss is a Seventh-day Adventist, who—as a conscientious objector—joined the military and refused to carry a gun into battle.  Doss’s refusal to participate in violence starkly contrasts the war-torn images Gibson’s puts on the screen. They are brutally violent, limbs are blown apart before our eyes and rats feast on dead soldiers. Is it too much? Perhaps not. War is far more brutal than anything we can watch on the big screen in the safety of our cozy seats. At this point, I am quite weary of the “based on a true story” marketing that seems to give so many films a certain level of cachet, but in the case of Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss’s selflessness is rather refreshing to see a unique World War II story.

9. O.J.: Made in America

o-j-made-in-america-1This gargantuan documentary by Ezra Edelman runs a staggering 464 minutes—well over seven hours. Its length—and the fact that it never becomes dull or tedious despite it—solidifies that the O.J Simpson story may best represent America’s obsession with celebrity, media, violence, the criminal justice system, and our complex, ongoing issues with race relations.

8. Fences

fences-1August Wilsons’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play features career high performances by Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. This play to screen adaptation may disappoint audiences who crave action and more locations than simply a backyard and living room, but it’s the simple set that doesn’t interfere with Wilson’s beautiful linguistic music along with Washington and Davis’ passion.

7. Tony Erdmann

tony-erdmann-1Another film that brings some much-needed originality to this year’s batch of movies. A German comedy that doesn’t try too hard to be funny – it’s comical when it needs to be and touching when the time is right. What’s most satisfying about Toni Erdman is how surprisingly gratifying of a film it is – just wait for the birthday brunch that becomes absurdly funny and oddly relatable. It’s a clever comment on the ridiculousness of corporate conformity and a need to perform well for the team.

6. 13th

13thNot only is Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the U.S. prison system a sobering essay on institutionalized racism in the U.S, but is also a study – through the 13th Amendment of the Constitution – of how it was allowed to thrive. The films success lies in its accessiblity whilst never being preachy. This is with out a doubt a movie that everyone should see.

5. Arrival

Amy Adams, Arrival
Amy Adams, Arrival

Adapted from the book, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival ponders some tough questions, in the words of its director Denis Villeneuve: “What would happen if you knew how and when you will die? What will your relationship with life and love, your family, and friends, and with your society be?  By being more in relationship with death, in an intimate way with the nature of life and its subtleties, it would bring us more humility.” We all need that human humility today, more than ever. As one of the smarter films of 2016, and with an intelligent performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is one last year’s films that deserves a second viewing.

4. The Salesman

the-salesman1Asghar Farhadi‘s realistic thriller The Salesman opens like a disaster film as an apartment building appears to collapse as its residents are forced to flee. After this disruptive event the films settles into Farhadi’s typical exploration of domestic life as the film’s central characters, a married couple, played brilliantly by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are forced to find an alternative apartment to live in. The Salesman is ultimately about more intimate matters than a physical disaster as their lives are dramatically changed by a violent event in their new apartment. Farhadi carefully and quietly spins the domestic drama into naturalistic revenge thriller that takes you for the ride inside the heads of its lead characters.

3. The Lobster

lobsterThe Lobster is one of the most unique films of 2016. Set in the near future, it takes an absurdist angle to explore what it means to be single. In this gray futuristic story, the uncoupled are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love within 45 days or they will be forever transformed into an animal of their choosing. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011). This is his first English language film, and he’s just as compelling and disturbing in English as he is in Greek. This time he has a few big screen names from Hollywood’s John C. Reilly, to across the Atlantic with England’s Rachel Weisz, France’s Léa Seydoux and middle-aged, pudgy Irish Colin Farrell in a very strong yet understated performance. These actors are all doing great ensemble work in a movie whose title begs the most important question – “what animal would you choose?”

2. Moonlight

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Moonlight is quite possibly a perfect acting movie – its ensemble of actors don’t miss a beat. While Mahershala Ali is getting all the—well deserved—attention for his performance as the neighborhood drug dealer who provides a young boy a home away from his abusive home—a stable life, if you will.  But the critically-overshadowed performance of Ashton Sanders as the bullied and questioning teenage Chiron is one of the most moving of the film.  Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Chiron’s crack addict mother is one of the year’s most compelling performances. With the film’s visually delightful cinematography and a beautiful script, Moonlight does not miss a step under the brilliant direction of Barry Jenkins. 

1. Manchester by the Sea

manchester-seaFew directors are able to make a film that successfully blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, while also maintaining a tone that is unquestionably dramatic. It helps that the film is set during an overcast snowy New England winter; that its set in a working class environment; and has an score that features some heavy pieces, including Albinoni’s classic funeral hit, “Adagio in G Minor.” Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan has seamlessly blended the dramatic with the comic,  through his direction of his well-crafted script. You don’t walk away confused about you just watched—it’s a definitely a drama, a devastating drama, with many moments that capture the clumsiness that bring humor to daily life. Affleck is the conflicted center of this film and gives a career-high performance that is a case study of quiet restraint, and subtle emotional depth. This is an honest performance that is successful for it’s nuanced and controlled quality, yet it’s not dull or boring—it’s authentic. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife delivers one of her most powerful performances in years. Manchester by the Sea, with its strong cast, mature writing, masterful direction, and a score that—despite coming dangerously close to overpowering the film—effectively enhances the over all tone. Manchester By The Sea is one of 2016’s best films and my number one.

 A few more:  

singstreet2
Sing Street (Dir. John Carney)

Sing Street

Elle

Lion

Loving

The Handmaiden 

Paterson

LaLa Land

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The Lobster: Today’s Singles are Tomorrow’s Voiceless Animals — or Crustaceans

lobsterThe Lobster, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is the kind of bizarre film I crave. Set in the near future, it takes an absurdist angle to explore what it means to be single (“Single? What’s wrong with you?”). In this gray futuristic story, the uncoupled are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love within 45 days or they will be forever transformed into an animal (or crustacean) of their choosing. How could I not love this? Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011). This is his first English language film, and he’s just as compelling, disturbing and thought provoking in English as he is in Greek. This time he has a few big screen names from Hollywood’s John C. Reilly, to across the Atlantic with England’s Rachel Weisz, France’s Léa Seydoux and middle-aged, pudgy Irish Colin Farrell in a very strong yet understated performance. All doing great ensemble work in a movie whose title begs the question, “what the hell is this about?”

The Lobster is essentially a love story that explores the human condition and examines the ubiquitous fear of there’s something wrong with you if you’re single. Beyond the film’s strange, bleak view of a world where people are failures unless they’re in love (and become a voiceless animal), it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy—sad, violent, smart and oddly hilarious. Its story is completely approachable and engaging, yet it leaves the viewer with much to ponder: does being coupled matter that much but most importantly, what animal would you choose to be?

The Lobster challenges today’s ever-present, on-line dating age with its constant hum of “you should be married and or partnered, or, at least, looking for a partner—what online dating platforms do you use? Lanthimos takes a very darkly comic approach with The Lobster as he comments on an ultimately meaningless (IMO) struggle—that often transforms into fear as one gets older—of being plagued with singleness while the Married are safely coupled and snuggled into the perceived norms of society. How we uncoupled long to be inoculated against the disease of singleness! Coupled and cured and never to hear the words, “when are you going to find someone and settle down.” Everyone’s clock is ticking, we are all aware of it. Such universal concerns of loneliness, failure to find a partner, and worries about dying are poetically explored by Lanthimos. The future world that The Lobster exists in is one that is believable—minus the turning into animals thing. The world that the Lobster’s characters inhibit is the near future, a world that feels like one we today could possibly live to see in our own not-so-distant future. With that The Lobster should age well as it’s not dated by current cinematic ideas of what the future may like.

Will The Lobster find a wide audience in the U.S.? Most likely not. This is no Captain America. It’s a deliciously odd picture that’s too subtle to be a crowd pleaser. Also, it’s in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. In Lanthimos words, “[In my movies] we raise questions about many things, I don’t want to . . . give specific narrow answers to those questions.“ If you are looking for answers this may not be the viewing experience you’re looking for, but if you want to walk away with some food for thought—and, of course a good laugh—then The Lobster is the right selection for you. In case you’re wondering what animal I would choose. I have to say, an elephant—they’re just so majestic.

John David West

 

Movie-Still Monday: The Lobster

 

IMG_2135.CR2

In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

5 New York Film Festival Movies to Catch when they Hit Theaters

NYFF2015collage

The New York Film Festival may have ended a couple weeks ago but the movies that premiered at the festival continue to roll into theaters including Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Steven Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies, featuring Tom Hankes; and Steve Jobs directed by Danny Boyle. In the weeks and months ahead more NYFF movies will be released in theaters. While the above-mentioned features are good, here are five films that are not to be missed and I hope to see, once again, in theaters.

—John David West

The Lobster

IMG_2135.CR2
Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

As one of my most anticipated movies of 2015, I had high hopes for The Lobster. How could I not? Yorgos Lanthimos—who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011) —directs his first English language film starring a middle aged, pudgy Colin Farrell and a short-sighted Rachel Weisz in a movie whose title begs the question, “what the hell is this about?”

Set in the near future, The Lobster is about how single people are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love or they will be forever transformed into an animal (or crustacean) of their choosing. Essentially it’s a love story that explores the human condition and examines the ubiquitous fear of there’s something wrong with you if you’re single. Beyond the film’s absurd, bleak view of a world where people are failures unless they’re in love (and become a voiceless animal), it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy—sad, but funny: violent, but smart and oddly hilarious. It leaves the viewer with much to ponder the big questions, like does being coupled matter that much and what animal would you choose to be?

 

Son of Saul

son of saul 2
Géza Röhrig as Saul. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by László Nemes and featuring Géza Röhrig as Saul, this film won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize of the Jury. Nemes’ first feature film is a powerful and unique look at the horrors of Auschwitz. Shot in 35mm, in academy ratio, with shallow focus, and long tracking shots; Son of Saul provides an immersive human experience that sticks with you long after the film is over. This should be an Oscar front-runner for Best Foreign Language film.

 

The Martian

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in THE MARTIAN.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s best selling book of the same name, Matt Damon plays astronaut and botanist Mark Watney who is left behind on Mars and thought as dead when the crew encounter a violent sandstorm and are forced to abandon their mission and make an emergency lift off from the red planet.

The Martian is both a crowd-pleasing movie and a smart science fiction film. It’s action packed fun and gorgeous to watch, and arouse rebellious thoughts like “come on NASA, let’s get back into space travel” —perhaps The Martian will inspire future missions to Mars astronauts and scientists. Unlike Gravity, Drew Goddard’s script succeeds in making the events plausible. The movie is packed with interesting science facts that don’t feel jarringly expositional, perhaps due to the comedic script and Damon’s charismatic performance. Ridley Scott succeeds in weaving a complicated story that is, at times visually poetic, at other times hilarious, but always consistently engaging. His use of is 3D is subtle and thankfully not distracting by being annoyingly self-aware. It sometimes comes dangerously close to having moments of schmaltzy Hollywood-feel-goodness (a few too many shots of cheering crowds in the control room and on the streets), and many characters are rather one-dimensional, but once you get past that The Martian is just elegant, fun, filmmaking.

 

Carol

ROONEY MARA and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

In typical 1950s tradition Carol, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, lives in a world where everything is seemingly perfect, ordered, and definitely stylish. All is as it should be or at least it appears so on the surface, as Carol conceals the secret of her sexuality. She is more progressive than one might expect, as her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) is aware of her past relationships with women. Living in the repressed ’50s, a mother and a beautiful wife to a wealthy man her sexuality is a secret that must be concealed despite herself. Todd Haynes has explored this world before, in the luscious Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven (2002), a film filled with colorful autumn-rich wide-angle shots. Carol is a bit more subdued, honest, and quite cold. Rather than vibrant shots, Carol is filled with close-ups, notably of faces, toys, and shiny vintage 1950s cars; and it’s a cold lonely winter that fills the screen. Perhaps this is not the most inviting world for the viewer, but Blanchett’s brilliance for conveying great depth without saying a word is evident in the film’s final shot, a simple yet impactful, delicate moment that lives beyond the life of this movie.

 

The Witness

THE_WITNESS_2-1

A thoroughly engrossing documentary by director James Soloman that unpacks the details and misinformation surrounding the events and iconic death of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was reportedly killed in front of 38 witnesses in Queens, New York.

The Witness is a powerful look at the devastating results of irresponsible journalism. Over the years, the Genovese murder became the subject of numerous books, news reports, themes on episodic TV crime shows, and case studies; her brutal murder shocked the country and its myth has remained alive through the world over the last half century. What is most refreshing in The Witness is how the film brings Kitty to life and reveals the person behind the grotesque murder. For the first time in 50 years, we see her as a beloved sister, popular friend, and a never-forgotten lover.

—John David West